Tech & Work

The geek: Look past the stereotype to uncover key skills

IT managers who think hiring a computer geek is a mistake should think again. Scott Robinson believes that if you look past the geek stereotype you will discover a unique set of valuable skills.

You have seen the stereotype in sitcoms and TV commercials: The classic “computer geek” is portrayed as a poorly dressed, disorganized wreck who is more likely to be watching Star Trek reruns than attending the prom. In the IT workplace, the stereotype carries additional baggage: Some managers think geeks are difficult to train, have trouble with documentation, and can cause problems because they are fiercely independent and indifferent to authority. Savvy IT managers know of one other trait: Geeks usually have the answers.

Here are some important facts to consider when working on a strategy to get the most out of your team, whether the team member is a geek or not.

There’s a person hiding in there
An executive I know once said something that’s obvious but well put: “Give me some information, I’ll make a decision; give me more information, I’ll make a better decision.” IT managers—particularly when making new hires—need to go the extra mile to get the information needed to make the right decision.

When you evaluate the computer geek, look past the stereotype and you may discover a number of qualities that can be tremendous assets to your development team. (Non-geeks, of course, may also exhibit these qualities.)

The upside of the cliche
IT managers should also consider the terrific personality traits of the stereotypical computer geek. Take Aaron for example. He is a young man I contract with for jobs requiring OOP work and Web design. He is the stereotypical geek who would have fit right in with the cast of “Revenge of the Nerds.” He is also often my first choice for contract work. Here are some of the traits Aaron exhibits that you should watch for when you are evaluating a geek's potential with your team:
  • Tenacity. The computer geek is tenacious. All the fires of hell will not stop this person from solving a problem. Working through lunch, working late, working on weekends—they won’t even think twice. They derive such genuine pleasure and produce such positive results that overtime is a small price to pay.
  • Diversity. Generally, the computer geek has a much broader knowledge base than a typical computer professional. Programming skills are almost certainly central, but you may also find a dexterous grasp of operating systems, networking issues, and so forth.
  • A trap door spider. It is often the case, though not always, that the computer geek knows more about the software than the vendor. Sometimes this information is gleaned from experimentation, sometimes from the Web, and sometimes from informal user groups. But you may find a welcome resource here in someone who knows where to find the trap doors, and back doors, in your system—a skill that’s often project-saving when everything crashes or when a software glitch seems unsolvable.
  • Indifference to politics. You have to have dealt with team members who are extremely political to fully appreciate those who are not. An apolitical employee can be like lemonade on the hottest day of the year, depending on your company’s climate.
  • Eagerness to be called upon. In your shop, you probably have a wide spectrum of willingness, from those who will jump in readily to those who hide in the corners. The computer geek tends to want to help, to display their competence and knowledge when it’s needed. Sometimes they don’t really know how to interject themselves, so a wise manager will create bridges.
  • Endless resources. The computer geek always seems to know where to find the answers to questions about programming suites, network resources, and operating system patches. And if the geek doesn't know the fix, they will know where to go to find out.

Challenge the stereotype
The downside of the computer geek stereotype, apart from the comical social portrait, is that such individuals are obstinate know-it-alls who do not work well with others. True, we see this caricature on television, but is it true in the case before you?

I worked with a programmer who exhibited many of the above traits. He was always willing to help, even in areas beyond his area of expertise. He would crack open the books or surf for answers on the Web. He’d work through lunch, or stay late to complete his own work, in order to help a team member. He would even fix a problem PC to save us the trouble of calling support. He’d provide background information that might be needed for a project report with no prompting at all, going to considerable trouble to gather it and condense it, and would be oblivious to whether or not anyone offered him credit for the assist.

Wouldn’t you love an entire department filled with such people?

The point is simple. In considering working with this prevalent IT character, or optimizing a relationship you already have with such a person, you are in exactly the position you are in with any team member. There are going to be some minuses, and there will likewise be pluses. There are no perfect development people. But as you weigh the pros and cons in this case, consider that the cons may not be as bad as you may think they will be. And the pros may yield an unexpected bonanza of team spirit, innovative contributions, and even a touch of valor when the going gets tough.



Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence...

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